TV review: Civilisations, BBC Two
- Henry Northmore
- 19 February 2018
Beautiful, ambitious new series charting the roots of human history, culture, society and art
In 1969 the BBC broadcast Kenneth Clark's landmark series Civilisation, but unlike the corporations other great documentary series of the era (David Attenborough's Life on Earth) they never really followed up on its success. Almost 50 years later Civilisations is inspired by Clark's work but has an ever wider scope. The 's' is important, whereas the original focused on Western culture, Civilisations aims to examine humanity through time and across the globe. It's a hugely ambitious project with nine core episodes plus spin-off programming on TV, radio and even live events.
The first episode opens on a surprisingly political note with footage of ISIS destroying historic sites in Mosel and Palmyra, before Simon Schama looks at the dawn of culture from the oldest known decorated object (a piece of ochre found in South Africa dating back to a mind-boggling 77,000 BC), then heads on to Greece, Petra and the Mayan civilisations. In the second episode Mary Beard examines the representation of the human body in art and their place and meaning within society, starting with a huge stone head in Tabasco State, Mexico.
Each episode is a self-contained capsule of information presented by either Schama, Beard or David Olusoga. While Schama gazes in awe at prehistoric hand stencils and Beard delights in Greek 'graffiti' carved onto a statue in Egypt their sense of wonder is infectious. However, the show doesn't just highlight the familiar touchstones of Greek, Roman and Egyptian culture, but also introduces us to Sanxingdui in China or Copán in Honduras, among many others.
Unsurprisingly, it's a visual feast as the cameras sweep across ruined cities and townships or focuses in for tight close-ups to emphasis the exquisite details of relics, pottery and sculpture. Even more inspiring is the breadth of knowledge, beautiful nuggets of information and insights into ancient worlds. Accessible and intelligent, Civilisations conveys a message of globalism, revelling in the variety of our species' ingenuity on an international scale. It's more theory and presenter-led than the likes of Life on Earth or Blue Planet, and proves the human race is just as fascinating as the animal kingdom.
Episodes watched: one and two of nine.
Civilisations will screen on BBC Two, Thu 1 Mar, 9pm.